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Nightclub Fire Leads to Legislative Changes, Lawsuits

Aired June 5, 2003 - 19:18   ET


Three and a half months after the horrific Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, wounded 200 more, a state panel tonight is calling for new rules to prevent a recurrence.

Now the Station nightclub that burned down in February and had no sprinklers. Investigators believe that on stage pyrotechnics touched off the blaze.

Jamie Colby is covering tonight's meeting in Providence -- Jamie.

JAMIE COLBY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Anderson, the committee that was assigned to study that blaze has just released their recommendations they hope will become law in Rhode Island.

The most significant is doing away with grandfather clauses that would bring more buildings up to code, requires sprinklers at buildings that house more than 150 people, and only allowing pyrotechnics at two venues in the state.

It comes with stiff penalties and more inspections. That, they say, the greatest tribute and most appropriate tribute to victims of the blaze and those who survived.


HAL PANCIERA, SURVIVED NIGHTCLUB FIRE: Every day I relive looking over that -- looking over that bar and looking at that stage.

COLBY: 35-year-old Hal Panciera was out for a night of fun with three friends at the Rhode Island nightclub The Station February 20 when heavy metal group Great White took the stage.

PANCIERA: I caught the pyrotechnics out of the corner of my eye, and I said, "Ooh, what's that?" And then, as soon as I did that, the building started to burn.

COLBY: Within minutes, with no sprinkler system and only one of four exits visible through the blinding smoke, he says, a pileup grew at the front door. Few could escape.

PANCIERA: when the smoke hit me, it was so thick, so black, so toxic, you couldn't breathe or see. And my first instinct was to wait for my friend, to see if I could get my friend out.

COLBY: All of Hal's friends got out alive, though one was burned over 60 percent of his body.

PANCIERA: I heard bottles breaking, people screaming, women screaming, people screaming for their relatives, their boyfriends, their girlfriends, their wives, their husbands, their sisters, their brothers. It was -- it was a nightmare.

COLBY: Exactly 100 died in the blaze. Several hundred more were injured. Returning to the site, now a makeshift memorial, Hal tries to make sense of it all, wondering what, if anything, will come from the tragedy.

PANCIERA: I'm having a difficult time trying to accept the fact that people went out to enjoy an evening of fun and wound up not going home to their family and friends. And that's a hard pill to swallow.

The technology that we have today, this was a senseless act of negligence. It never should have happened.


COLBY: Connecticut and Massachusetts are two other states that are looking at upgrading their fire safety codes. It's significant to note that the code in place here dates back to 1968 -- Anderson.

COOPER: Jamie Colby, thanks for the report.

The fire led to a massive federal lawsuit filed today by four survivors and the families of four victims. They're suing 27 defendants, including the club, the band, companies with ties to the club, the town, as well as the state. Now all told, they are seeking $100 million and that's only that one group of people. It's a federal suit because the plaintiffs are from out of state.

But Rhode Island residents are pursuing suits of their own. One of them is a man by the name of Walter Castle. Now, he was not only injured in the fire; he lost 25 friends in that blaze.

He joins us tonight from Providence, Rhode Island, along with his lawyer Ronald Resini -- excuse me, Resmini. And they're getting set up right now as we get ready to talk to them.

Now Walter Castle, as we said, was in the building, was not injured physically on the outside, but had internal damages, he says, and that is one of the things we're going to talk with him about.

You're looking at some of the images. And we're going to actually take a quick break while we get them miked up. Take a quick break, we'll be right back. And we'll do the interview.


COOPER: Welcome back. We're talking about lawsuits as a result of that Rhode Island nightclub fire. Now one of them was filed by a man, Walter Castle, who was not only injured in the fire, he lost 25 friends there. He joins us tonight from Providence, along with his attorney, Ronald Resmini. Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us. Walter, I want to start off with you. As you see those images again, those nightmarish images from the night of the fire, it must take you back there? What goes through your mind? What do you remember?

WALTER CASTLE, SURVIVED NIGHTCLUB FIRE: I remember total horror show of that night, basically all the screams, the people fighting for their lives, and so on.

COOPER: And is it anger now? Or is it sadness? What are the emotions?

CASTLE: Most of it is anger towards the people responsible.

COOPER: How have you affected by it? I know you were injured, have had problems internally. Describe those to us.

CASTLE: Through all the hot smoke and stuff, I have permanent lung damage with severe respiratory problems, and I'm on an inhaler also for the rest of my life.

COOPER: And emotionally, I know you have been having a tough time. You told one of our producers, you described yourself as a time bomb waiting to explode. What did you mean by that?

CASTLE: With all the rage inside me, it's basically I'm just trying to cope and let all this anger and rage out of me constructively, so I'm not destructive.

COOPER: And, Ronald, what are you looking for in this lawsuit? Are you looking for changes? Obviously I know there will be a financial element to it. What do you want?

RONALD RESMISI, WALTER CASTLE'S LAWYER: Well, I think this evening the legislature has done some enactment of laws that will bring about the changes in that direction.

What we're looking for here is to get an application of the rule of law to determine whether that law finds those defendants, namely 30 that we've named in our lawsuit, to be responsible for the tragedy. Obviously, some of them will be cleared from any responsibilities and others will be held responsible.

So we're looking from the federal court to give us direction in that regard.

COOPER: All right. We're going to leave it there, gentlemen. Ronald Resmini, Walter Castle, appreciate you joining us tonight. Thank you very much.


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